Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), is a landmark United States Supreme Court decision in the jurisprudence of the United States, upholding the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities under the doctrine of "separate but equal."
The decision was handed down by a vote of 7 to 1 with the majority opinion written by Justice Henry Billings Brown and the dissent written by Justice John Marshall Harlan. Associate Justice David Josiah Brewer was absent at the ruling because of his daughter's sudden death the day before. "Separate but equal" remained standard doctrine in U.S. law until its repudiation in the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education.
After the Supreme Court ruling, the New Orleans Comité des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens), which had brought the suit and arranged for Homer Plessy's arrest in order to challenge Louisiana's segregation law, replied, “We, as freemen, still believe that we were right and our cause is sacred.”
In 1890, the State of Louisiana passed a law that required separate accommodations for blacks and whites on railroads, including separate railway cars. Concerned, the Free People of Color in New Orleans formed the Committee of Citizens -- a group dedicated to the repeal of that law. Their members included Arthur Esteves, C.C. Antoine, Firmin Chrisophe, C.G. Johnston, Paul Bonseigneur, Laurent Auguste, Rudolph B. Baquie, Rudolphe L. Desdunes, Louis A. Martinet, Numa E. Mansion, L.J. Joubert, Frank Hall, Noel Bacchus, George Geddes and A.E. P. Albert. They eventually persuaded Homer Plessy to test it. Plessy was born a free man and was an "octoroon" (someone of seven-eighths Caucasian descent and one-eighth African descent). However, under Louisiana law, he was classified as black, and thus required to sit in the "colored" car.
On June 7, 1892, Plessy boarded a car of the East Louisiana Railroad in New Orleans, Louisiana, bound for Covington, Louisiana, that was designated for use by white patrons only, as mandated by state law. The railroad company had been informed already as to Plessy's racial lineage, and after Plessy had taken a seat in the whites-only railway car, he was asked to vacate it and sit instead in the blacks-only car. Plessy refused and was arrested immediately. Plessy was remanded for trial in Orleans Parish, despite his objections that the Louisiana law was in violation of the Constitution of the United States. He was convicted and sentenced to pay a $25 fine.
In his case, Homer Adolph Plessy v. The State of Louisiana, Plessy argued that the state law which required East Louisiana Railroad to segregate trains had denied him his rights under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. However, the judge presiding over his case, John Howard Ferguson, ruled that Louisiana had the right to regulate railroad companies as long as they operated within state boundaries. Plessy sought a writ of prohibition.
The Committee of Citizens took Plessy's appeal to the Supreme Court of Louisiana, where he again found an unreceptive ear, as the state Supreme Court upheld Judge Ferguson's ruling. Undaunted, the Committee appealed to the United States Supreme Court in 1896. Two legal briefs were submitted on Plessy's behalf. One was signed by Albion W. Tourgée and James C. Walker and the other by Samuel F. Phillips and his legal partner F. D. McKenney. Oral arguments were held before the Supreme Court on April 13, 1896. Tourgée and Phillips appeared in the courtroom to speak on behalf of Plessy.
Tourgée built his case upon violations of Plessy's rights under the Thirteenth Amendment, prohibiting slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees the same rights to all citizens of the United States, and the equal protection of those rights, against the deprivation of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Tourgee argued that the reputation of being a white man was "property," which, by the law, implied the inferiority of African-Americans as opposed to whites.
In a 7 to 1 decision handed down on May 18, 1896 (Justice David Josiah Brewer did not participate, due to the death of his daughter), the Court rejected Plessy's arguments based on the Fourteenth Amendment, seeing no way in which the Louisiana statute violated it. In addition, the majority of the Court rejected the view that the Louisiana law implied any inferiority of blacks, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Instead, it contended that the law separated the two races as a matter of public policy.
When summarizing, Justice Brown declared, "We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it."
While the Court did not find a difference in quality between the whites-only and blacks-only railway cars, this was manifestly untrue in the case of most other separate facilities, such as public toilets, cafés, and public schools, where the facilities designated for blacks were poorer than those designated for whites.
Justice John Marshall Harlan, who decried the excesses of the Ku Klux Klan, wrote a scathing dissent in which he predicted the court's decision would become as infamous as that of Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). As heralded as this dissent may be, in which Harlan called for a "color-blind" constitution, it should be noted that he did not view all races as equal. In his dissent, Harlan highlighted the plight of blacks by pointing out that the Chinese, a race he viewed as inferior, could still ride with whites. "There is a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States. Persons belonging to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country. I allude to the Chinese race," he wrote.
New Orleans historian Keith Weldon Medley, author of We As Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson, The Fight Against Legal Segregation, said the words in Justice Harlan's "Great Dissent" originated with papers filed with the court by "The Citizen’s Committee."
The case helped cement the legal foundation for the doctrine of separate but equal, the idea that segregation based on classifications was legal as long as facilities were of equal quality. However, Southern state governments refused to provide blacks with genuinely equal facilities and resources in the years after the Plessy decision. The states not only separated races but, in actuality, ensured differences in quality In January 1897, Homer Plessy pled guilty to the violation and paid the fine.